Turkey is infamous for being dry and bland, but those who spread the rumors haven’t tried the two most powerful flavor arsenals.
Nothing leads to a perfectly tender and flavorful turkey other than brine and compound butter.
This is a pretty bold statement to make, I know. Yet, it is a conclusive one, based on fifteen years of trial and error while cooking turkey, using different techniques.
Let me shed enough light on each of these two cooking techniques.
Brining is the act of soaking food in a salty solution.
The brine (salty solution) renders the food juicy from the inside while preserving the firmness of the skin.
Brining is not limited to turkey. I tried the same technique with pork chops and couldn’t be more pleased. Brine is also used to pickle vegetables.
There are three ways to brine the turkey:
- Injecting the turkey with the brine, using a syringe. The upside of this is saving space in your fridge and the downside is that the salt distribution in the turkey flesh could turn out uneven.
- Soaking the turkey in the brine. This will ensure a full distribution of brine, yet it is sometimes hard to find a big enough bucket for the turkey and the brine. Also a spot for the turkey in the fridge could be an issue. The remedy for that is to fill a cooler with ice, brine and the turkey.
- Dry brine the turkey. Instead of using water, the turkey is rubbed with a mix of herbs, kosher salt and spices. It is less work but it is also less effective than the wet brine.
Sugar, salt, vinegar, and water are the basic ingredients for a brine. They tenderize the turkey flesh, while the flavorings such as the garlic, aromatic fresh and dry herbs, peppercorn, etc, infuse the turkey with subtle flavors that offset its blandness. (Find the recipe below)
B. Compound Butter:
Compound butter is butter mixed with herbs and seasoning. Some advanced versions of compound butter could include capers and anchovies.
This flavor bomb serves multi purposes which are:
- Infusing the bird flesh with a nice nutty flavor of melted and caramelized butter.
- When the butter melts and caramelizes in the oven heat, it crisps up the skin while keeping the flesh tender and moist.
- It provides the turkey with a golden hued skin that is food magazine worthy.
- The butter functions as a vehicle of flavors given the spices and herbs mixed into it.
When I prepare the brine and compound butter for my turkey, I make sure to match the flavors. In the recipes below, the brine and compound butter are the base of my Southern Chipotle turkey.
(recipe adapted From Ree Drummond)
- 2 gallons (32 cups of 7.5 liters) of water
- 3 cups of apple cider vinegar (or regular vinegar)
- 1 1/2 cups of Kosher salt
- 1 cup of sugar
- 5 bay leaves
- 1 tablespoon of celery seeds
- 2 tablespoons of trio peppercorn
- A handful of oregano and thyme sprigs
- 5 gloves of garlic
- Add the sugar, water, and vinegar to the water in a large pot and stir well until the salt and sugar is completely dissolved.
- Add the garlic, seasonings, and herbs and bring the brine to a simmer.
- Let the brine cool completely before adding the turkey to the brine.
- Leave the turkey in the brine for 18 to 24 hours.
- Remove the turkey from the brine and discard the brine water.
- Rinse the turkey with fresh cold water and dry it very well with paper towel until it’s totally dry.
- Apply the marinade or the seasoning on the turkey.
B. Compound Butter
- 1 stick of butter (115 grams)
- 1 tablespoon of packed light brown sugar
- I tablespoon of smoked paprika
- 1 1/2 teaspoon of chipotle pepper (adjust the heat to your liking)
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 2 teaspoons ground coriander
- 1/2 teaspoon of salt
- 1/2 teaspoon of pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
- 1 teaspoon of fresh thyme leaves
- 1/4 teaspoon dry oregano
- Let the butter come to room temperature.
- In the softened butter, mix all the spices and herbs in a deep dish using a rubber spatula.
- Transfer the butter-seasoning mix to surface of parchment paper, form a log, and keep it in the fridge until you are ready to massage the turkey with it.
- Slice the cold butter in pieces and use one piece at a time to avoid butter waste. Any excess butter that touches the turkey CAN’T be used again and should be discarded.
- Any leftover butter that didn’t touch the turkey can be saved in the fridge or freezer and used later to season a piece of tenderloin or a whole chicken.